Updated 12.10pm with Heritage Malta statement.
The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage will ask the Planning Authority to freeze a highly-contentious permit issued on November 9 for an apartment block on the doorstep of Ġgantija temples, pending the outcome of a heritage impact assessment.
Sources close to the cultural heritage watchdog told Times of Malta that it intended to invoke an article of the Development Planning Act to effectively freeze the permit for an apartment block of 22 flats and 20 underlying garages, less than 200 metres away from the protected temples.
Dating back around 5,600 years, Ġgantija Temples are the world’s oldest remains of a free-standing building and the world’s second-oldest religious building.
The permit drew shock and widespread condemnation with a fact-check by Times of Malta this week showing that all sites within this particular area of archaeological importance also fall within the buffer zone, contrary to the developers’ claims.
UNESCO mandates that a heritage impact assessment is required for any developments within buffer zones of World Heritage sites.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre wrote a letter to Malta’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO insisting that “in accordance with the operational guidelines, a heritage impact assessment should be carried out for the development.”
Superintendent Kurt Farrugia informed the Planning Authority about the letter last February. Although NGOs had insisted that the site lies within the buffer zone of the temples, the application’s case officer argued at the hearing last week that the site lies in an area of archaeological importance but outside the formal buffer zone for the temples. The heritage impact assessment was not carried out.
However, the Maltese national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the body that recommends buffer zones to protect heritage monuments, confirmed that the development site fell within the UNESCO buffer zone intended to protect Ġgantija Temples and therefore required the assessment.
SCH intends to invoke Article 80 – sources
Sources said the SCH intended to invoke Article 80 of the Development Planning Act to freeze the permit pending the findings of the heritage impact assessment.
The procedure in article 80 of the law is called upon in exceptional cases whereby a development permit may only be revoked or modified when it is proven that the permit was issued on the basis of incorrect information or where there is an error on the face of the record.
It is down to us to save it from a prime minister and his acolytes who have no appreciation for our country’s historical and cultural heritage. They just want us to throw away our identity. They know the price of everything but value of nothing- European Parliament president Roberta Metsola
Sources said the PA can only ‘freeze’ development permission from being executed during the 30-day period from when the development permit is published. During this period, a registered objector has the right to submit an appeal to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal.
Heritage Malta concerns
State agency Heritage Malta also expressed 'serious concerns' on Sunday about the permit issued by the PA.
"As custodians of Malta's cultural heritage, we emphasize the need for preserving and protecting the outstanding universal value of these UNESCO World Heritage sites," it said in a statement.
It added that it 'will strongly appeal to the decision'.
"We have consistently objected to this development during UNESCO World Heritage Committee discussions. We support the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage's call for a heritage impact assessment, highlighting the importance of a thorough evaluation."
The agency called for transparent collaboration with the authorities to immediately revoke the permit and find solutions that prioritise cultural preservation and community needs.
The PA’s green light for the project drew widespread condemnation. The Nationalist Party said the permit was “scandalous” while European Parliament president Roberta Metsola called on people to do their utmost to protect the temples from development.
“It is down to us to save it from a prime minister and his acolytes who have no appreciation for our country’s historical and cultural heritage. They just want us to throw away our identity. They know the price of everything but value of nothing,” Metsola wrote in a Facebook post yesterday.